Reflections On International Women’s Day: MOTHERHOOD, WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN A PANDEMIC WORLD

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.….It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would become a full-time employee and homeschool teacher at the same time. I am not going to deny it, but this was probably one of the most difficult things I ever had to endure. I was exhausted and anxious to say the least. It was definitely challenging trying to work and navigate online learning, but somehow, we survived it. As much as I was frustrated with the situation, I was fortunate in a sense where I had a very supportive spouse, employer and a network of friends online to talk to. The majority of people that I talked to regarding the school closure situation were actually women and I think everyone had the same feelings that I had. We all shared the same worries about our children’s future, we all vented to each other with how challenging it was to teach and work at the same time and how we were all worried about the mental health of our children and ourselves. At the time, I felt it was so important to advocate for the safe return to school and in doing so, I realized it was a very empowering and meaningful experience.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought out many inequalities within society, namely within racial, ethnic and indigenous communities, refugees and women. Women, who bare the burden of most household responsibilities, have been negatively impacted as a result of school and daycare closures. This in turn negatively impacts the workforce, creating an even greater gender divide on the economy. But the silver lining in all this is that women’s rights and equity have come to the spot light and change is happening: the conversation has started. In a post-pandemic world, we really need to ask ourselves how can we better support women? I believe the answer is simple.

Everything starts in the home:

I truly believe that any conversation must start within ourselves and within our homes. As parents, we need to start having conversations with our children regarding the value of women within society and provide them with the perspective of the world through the lens of a woman. Education is a key element in teaching our children about the values of gender equality as an important role within a democratic society.

Advocacy and support:

Continuing to advocate for things such as paid leave during an emergency for example or more equitable workplaces are important policies that would help women. Providing women with support, for example, during motherhood, could be extremely beneficial towards women who, for instance, want to further themselves in their careers. Today there is an array of online support groups and outreach services available within many communities to help serve women in such situations. I am also seeing more and more platforms on social media supporting women in various roles of society. It’s important that we continue to advocate for things such as parental leave, child care leave, flexible work schedules to help women move forward.

Supporting women through business:

Today, many women are taking on the roles of becoming business owners and entrepreneurs, however, only a small percentage of women are CEO’s throughout the world. According to Catalyst, although the number of women CEO’s have gone up in 2020, “there are still nearly 13 companies run by a man for every company run by a woman.” However, more and more women are stepping up to the challenge and starting their own business ventures. Today, I ask you to look around in your own communities and go out and support businesses owned by women. Even doing something small, such as tagging a female-owned business on Instagram or picking up a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop run by women, can go a long way in showing our support for women in business. Women supporting women is a very powerful thing!

Celebrating women:

Celebrating women’s empowerment doesn’t have to be only on one day, but rather should happen everyday and there are small things we can do to help celebrate women. Maybe its contributing towards a charity that is geared towards the empowerment of women or learning about an important historical figure within the women’s rights movement. We can also honour the women in our own lives, such as a parent, grandparent, a teacher or a friend.

In summary, given all the hardships that we have been through this past year, if anything, I have learned that as a woman and as a mother, I am strong, I am resilent and I am fearless. Not only will I continue to advocate for my children, but I will advocate for all women, to help create a more just society.

Why the kids need a village: thoughts on reopening schools in ontario

Schools throughout Southwestern Ontario have remained closed since the Christmas break. The original plan was for students to return to in-person instruction on January 11, 2021. However, statistics from the Ministry of Health released just days before the return to school indicated a spike in cases as a result of “holiday gatherings,” (which in my view was negligible because the amount of children being tested decreased during over the holidays and therefore the denominator was less). As a result of this, the provincial government made the agonizing decision to extend online learning for most parts of Southern Ontario until February 10th. Although I believe this was a difficult decision to make and as much as I appreciate efforts to curb the spread of the virus, this left many children and parents heartbroken, upset and confused.

I can see that heartbreak in my kids, everyday. My 4 year old son, cries almost every day and tells me “mama, I miss real school” and finds it very hard to stay engaged. My oldest son who is 6, sometimes gets frustrated because he feels as if he can’t keep up with the rest of the class. We are now into week three of virtual learning and my children are really starting to feel it. The stimulation from the screen time coupled with the frustration of navigating online learning is difficult for children in their primary years.

Don’t get me wrong: both of my children’s teachers have been phenomenal and very understanding of the situation. They have gone above and beyond to help my kids cope during this time, including one-on-one meetings, encouraging us to use meditation and breaks when needed. We really need to give our teachers a show of appreciation right now because they themselves are adapting to a new learning environment. Despite all of our efforts to make online learning a positive experience, I am worried about the impact of continued online learning in young children, specifically:

-The lack of interaction with their peers, especially during the formative years of development;
-The long-term effects of disruption in the school year and finally;
-That we are inadvertently creating a mental health crisis in all our youth.

I have been communicating with my MPP’s office on and off since the summer, writing letters and voicing my concern for my children’s well-being and quality of education. I understand that we are living in unprecedented times and I truly believe that they are trying their best to help protect a vulnerable health care system and the elderly. However, based on all the literature and data about schools, closing schools is the wrong policy choice. UNICEF recently came out with a statement and declared that children cannot afford to miss another year of school. The CEO of Sick Kids Hospital even stated that schools should be “the first to open and the last to close.” But even more disturbing are stories such as the New York Times report on the decision for schools in Las Vegas to reopen as result of increased suicides in youth.

This should frighten every parent.

I have come to the conclusion that despite all the academic evidence, children’s voices have not been heard at the decision-making table. This is where we as parents must come in and this is why I have been advocating for a safe return to school since the summertime.

Please don’t misunderstand me and I have to be explicit when I state this: I know first-hand how serious COVID-19 is and personally have friends and family on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis, but something in my heart tells me that keeping children away from the classroom is also wrong. When every peer-reviewed journal has indicated that the spread of the virus is extremely low in school-aged children and that schools are in fact, the safest place for children to be in right now, why are the schools still closed, knowing that the risks greatly outweigh the benefits?

It’s just plain wrong.

I recently read a tweet from the the CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) which stated that Ottawa had the second-highest rate of distress calls to the Kids Help Line. That tweet really resonated something inside me. As an NICU parent, I have my own appreciation around mental health awareness and as such, I decided I could not stay silent no more. As an NICU parent and navigating our journey through prematurity, I learned early on, that a parent is a child’s greatest advocate. Considering too that we are also approaching Mental Health Day here in Canada, I believe this conversation is appropriate. So last week, I reached out to my friends on my private account on Instagram via my stories to see if any one else felt the way I did.

The response was overwhelming and the consensus was…..children need to be in schools.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

The conversations I had with many of my friends inspired me so much because every person I spoke with was in a different situation, or they had a different view of the pandemic. But despite all these differences, I was able to engage with each person in a meaningful and positive way. I believe that engaging in this manner is what should be the foundation towards positive change and sound policy-making.

In summary, the response was overwhelmingly positive but also revealed a lot of sadness, fear and frustration. I spoke with people from all walks of life: from health care providers, teachers, early childhood educators, business owners, parents and non-parents, stay at home parents and working parents. Overall, everyone agrees that children need to be in school. Many parents told me that they have noticed a negative change of behaviour in their children, others said they felt tremendous guilt for leaving them to watch television while they had to work and others were concerned about the amount of screen time as a result of remote learning. Some individuals reached out to me and told me that they kept their kids home for the year, not because they were afraid of coronavirus, but they were more concerned about the possible interuptions to their child’s learning.

It was interesting to note that in other places in the world, like Croatia for instance, kindergarten is not mandatory, rather there is vrtić (daycare,) which is optional and is more for young children to socialize. A close friend of mine who lives in Paris, France told me that children have been going to school the whole time, while another friend in Australia told me that the measures were just too much.

Many teachers disclosed to me that online learning, especially for children in their formative years is not ideal and rather this was created more as a response for the demand for live learning at home. As pointed out by one teacher, the amount of time for synchronous learning also has no bearing on pedagogy. Another close friend who works in occupational therapy told me that the amount of distress calls, specifically with families who have autistic children, went through the roof.

Although I am not disputing the severity of the virus and agree that there must be an effort to slow the spread of the virus as a means to protect our vulnerable and our health care system, there also needs to be a balance, in my view. I too was for lockdown back in March when we knew very little of the virus. Images of Wuhan, Iran and Northern Italy frightened us and we had to do something about it. However, 10 months in, countless studies and research, vaccines finally arriving, we still aren’t doing any better for our kids. This is leaving many parents afraid that schools will be closed until March.

We know already that the results of prolonged lockdown policies are disproportionately affecting low-income communities, ethnic minorities, women and children. My question is, despite all the research regarding children and schools, why aren’t we doing any better? How come no one else has proposed a more sustainable solution?

But there is hope!

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Slowly, the ideas are starting to come in. One example of an innovative solution was on a podcast I listened to called “Solving Healthcare,” hosted by Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng. This particular episode that I listened to consisted of a panel of experts ranging from infectious disease, communications and public health. They discussed possible solutions to the pandemic and addressed areas of concern. I was particularly impressed by some of the ideas that they proposed such as:

-going back to the core values of public health;
-having a clear and consistent message;
-the need to address target areas that are greatly affected by COVID-19 such as workplaces and long-term care homes;
-making more use of available tools such as rapid testing and finally;
-paid sick leave for essential workers.

You can listen more to the podcast here and decide for yourself, but from my point of view, this was an excellent start for changing policy. Listening to a dialogue such as this one reminded me of the core values I learned as a graduate student in political science many years ago. Creating good public policy means coming up with sustainable solutions to handling a crisis, without harming other aspects of society. It’s about being efficient with the tools you have available for everyone to benefit from.

But going back to my main concern of keeping schools closed, please know, that I am not by any means undermining the severity of this virus. However, I am speaking as a concerned parent who wants what is best for her children. Its what we as parents, educators, health care providers alike want and should strive towards: a safe, loving, nurturing and warm environment for all children. Like the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. We need to support our children during this time and come up with ways to help them not just cope, but to thrive, for they are our future!

Let’s be that village and let’s support our children!

Some of the conclusions I came up with during my Instagram conversation to help navigate during this time (and for you too):

  1. Remember that we are ALL doing our best;
  2. Remind your kids that they are doing their best too and give them breaks when they need it (i.e. outdoor play, going for a walk or bike ride, puzzle time, colouring sheets or watching a movie;)
  3. Be kind to yourself and remember that you can only control how you feel;
  4. Know that support is available if you need it (i.e. call a friend or a family member for mental support; know that there is also support available in your community;)
  5. Talk to your child’s teacher and come up with a plan of action if your child is struggling with online learning;
  6. Stay healthy mentally, physically and emotionally and stay safe.


With much love and gratitude,

N.

It’s okay to cry: why it’s okay if you have to sometimes

One mother’s perspective on the challenges of raising spirited children and debriefing after a challenging situation

Parenthood is full of ebbs and flows, and on this particular night, I was done. I walked away to a dark corner and needed that space to be alone. When I went down to the floor, so too did the tears.

I had used all my energy to try and calm an inconsolable child down, and I couldn’t anymore. I tried so hard to console him, but the tantrum sucked every ounce of life out of me. Despite all my best efforts to try and calm him down, using all the strategies I learned from books such as the Whole Brain Child and Raising your Spirited Child, nothing was working. I tried our breathing exercises, which he flat out refused and then counting down to ten, but nothing worked.

So I had to turn around and walk away.

Let me back track the scenario: He was upset because he was asked to go to bed early. He started to be a little cranky and my husband said it was time for bed. He then started to cry and scream. My husband simply ignored all this and kept saying, “I think you are tired, let’s go to bed.” The screaming escalated as my son did not want to comply, so he started to bang the floor with his feet and hit. My husband said “hands are not for hitting,” but it didn’t work.

After some time, I stepped in to relieve my husband. I went down to my son’s level and said, “you seem really frustrated that it’s bedtime, don’t you? I know it’s fun to stay up late, but it’s time to get some rest.” He obviously did not like that answer. I then asked him to count to ten and he yells back at me “NO!” I said, “let’s breathe out the angry moster three times,” which he kept screaming “NO!” I then said, “I can’t understand you when you talk like that..” Normally, these strategies would have worked, but tonight, nothing seemed to have worked. Perhaps it was because he was overtired that made the tantrum even worse, or the fact that we have a full-house right now (our in-laws are living with us temporarily). He did not want to give up his fight and towards the end, I had to walk away.

Eventually, it was my father-in-law who was able to calm him down. They had a little chit-chat about what happened and he was able to emotionally regroup himself. They talked it out and he came out of his room. He looked a little sad and almost embarrassed for how he behaved. He apologized to both my husband and I for how he treated us. He said he just wasn’t ready for bedtime yet. I explained to him why bedtime is so important, that sleep is healthy and we need sleep to help us grow. I told him that I forgave him, but then said that for your consequence, you get no TV privileges tomorrow. He accepted his consequence gracefully and I ended the moment by telling him that “I love you, no matter what. Tomorrow is a new day and a fresh start.” He agreed and finally fell asleep.

When he went to bed, I sat towards the end of the hallway, I found a dark corner and I started to cry. I felt as if all the energy I had was completely sucked out of me. I also felt like a huge failure because I wasn’t the one who was able to calm him down. During that moment, I felt defeated because I tried everything I could to help him and it wasn’t me who was able to calm him down, but someone else.

So I needed that moment to cry and let all my emotions out…..and you know what? That is totally okay.

Why?

Because over the years I learned the following three things when it comes to motherhood:

1. To acknowledge my feelings and to own up to them;

2. To accept that sometimes its okay to ask for help;

3. To remind myself that I am human, too.

Raising kids, let alone spirited children is hard, especially when kids are experiencing huge emotions. It can be challenging navigating how they feel during those moments. But as I have learned, sometimes we as adults forget that children too have good days and bad days and that on the bad days, they may have a more difficult time expressing how they feel. During this scenario, my son had a hard time communicating that he was just not ready for bed. Definitely we could have all done things differently, but in the end, it worked out because we as a family worked as a team to resolve the situation.

For a long time, I had a hard time accepting that it’s okay to ask for help, but in a situation like this one, sometimes it’s good to have extra hands on deck. Whether its the other parent, or a grandparent, or whoever, sometimes we need that extra person to help turn the situation around. No wonder why experts often say that it takes a village to raise a child.

On the other hand, knowing that as much as parenthood is rewarding, it is also requires a lot of hard work, sweat and tears. The other thing that took me a while to accept was knowing that it’s okay to walk away and cry if you have to, or to debrief in some other form (sometimes I will jot my feelings down in a journal, which is also very helpful). Sometimes we as mothers (and parents in general) need to let our emotions out. Parenthood is difficult and accepting that it is healthy to let our emotions out is a physically and emotionally good thing. Whether its a good cry, a good laugh or a good run….whatever it is, just do it. It’s all part of that process of coping with a difficult situation.

Overall my message is, that we as parents are human like anyone else. Accepting that it is okay to walk away and cry after these challenging moments is totally okay. Crying isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather of humility and great strength. According to Medical News Today, crying has some soothing benefits and can help relive stress during difficult moments.

My advice to all you mom’s out there: if you need to cry, just let it out. If you need to go outside and get some fresh air, do it. If you need to fill up a tub and soak in some epsom salts, just do it. I can’t stress enough that it’s okay to feel frustrated sometimes when things don’t work out how you wanted them to. It happens to even the best of us. I think it’s always good to regroup after a difficult moment. After all, as I tell my children after a challenging moment, tomorrow is always a new day.

Photo credit: Three Little Birds Photography

Reference: Medical News Today, “Eight benefits of crying: Why it’s good to shed a few tears.”

One mom’s perspective: igniting that spark in your children’s mind through reading

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”— Dr. Seuss from the book “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”

I grew up in a humble, middle class home to Croatian immigrants in Windsor, Ontario.  Both my parents worked in the auto industry.  We grew up simply and I had a wonderful and modest childhood.  We didn’t have anything extravagant growing up, but the one thing I do remember was that monthly order from Scholastic Book Club. My parents felt it was very important to expose us to books as they believed it was vital towards our education and development.  I remember the pure joy and excitement when that monthly book order would arrive. My father, with his best efforts in his broken English, would read to my brother and I every night before bed when he worked days’ shift.  It was during these precious moments where I developed this love for reading.  “Corduroy” by Don Freeman remains to this day one of my favourite children’s tales.

When I became pregnant with my first son, I started putting together a little children’s library.  I remember starting it with a Croatian alphabet book that we had purchased in Croatia during our “babymoon.” Books such as “I Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch and “Guess How Much I Love You” by Sam McBratney filled the shelves. However, my oldest son surprised us nearly three months early and spent some time in the NICU.   During his NICU stay, we were made aware about the benefits of reading and singing to premature infants. Various academic studies noted the following benefits of reading to premature infants, namely, increased bonding between parent and child, decreased stress levels, language and overall brain development in premature infants. For those reasons, I made it my life’s mission to read to him every day during our NICU stay….and to this very day, I still do. In general, padeiatricians and early childhood educators have recommended that reading should start during infancy. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society’s website, reading to children can “help prepare them for school and set them up for success later in life.”

As a parent, I think its so important to take the time to read to kids, especially in this age of iPhones and tablets. Although I understand that technology is now a normal part of society, I also believe in balance: in teaching kids the importance of reading and being read to. This means not just simply teaching children how to read, but to help them formulate ideas, comprehension, imagination and most importantly, to appreciate the value of a good book. The goal is simple: using reading as a tool to spark their little imaginations and to help them grow.

It makes me proud knowing that my boys enjoy being read to, sometimes multiple times a day! My oldest son is now in grade 1 and he just started reading; while my youngest who is now in junior kindergarten, is trying to read as well. It’s been amazing to us as parents to see how reading has sparked that curiosity inside of them not just through story time, but through imaginative play and art.

The boys definitely have some favourite books who are constantly on rotation- Dr. Seuss and Robert Munch, to name a few. They also enjoy the many books we brought back from Croatia, such as Moje Male Molitve za Svaki Dan (Everyday Prayers,) or Gdje si, mala maco? (Where are you, little kitten?) Pre-covid, we used to spend many weekends venturing out to our local library, exploring all the books on the shelves and checking out new releases. Story time has overall fostered a positive impact on their lives and have formulated fond memories for all of us. For instance, whenever I see the book, “On The Night You Were Born,” (by Nancy Tillman,) it always brings me back to those early days when we brought our oldest son home from the hospital.

Story time has certainly strengthened our bond as a family and it’s something we look forward to after a long day. Life has definitely come full circle: to that time way back in Windsor when my father, in that very broken English, used to read to me, to the present day where I now read to my two small boys. It is my hope that one day, my boys will read to their future children too. Reading and appreciating books is a gift that we must never take for granted.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Some of my children’s favourite books:

  • “Say Something” by Peter H. Reynolds
  • “I am Human” by Susan Verde
  • “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss
  • “Oh The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss
  • “I Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch
  • “Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons” by Eric Litwin
  • “Icky Little Duckling” by Steve Smallman

References:

Was it really a cruel summer? My recap of summer 2020

A parallel universe

The summer of 2020 will go down in history as one of the most difficult summers our generation has ever had to endure. Typically, my family and I spend our summers in Croatia, however, we (regrettably) decided not to go due to the pandemic. As you may recall in earlier blog posts, 2019 was a very difficult year for me after my uncle’s sudden passing and 2020 was supposed to be a breath of fresh air. Like many of you, I experienced both emotional highs and lows, but at some point I told myself to not give in to negative feelings and try to make the most of this summer.

Was this the worst summer to date? Looking back, it wasn’t really that bad at all. It was very strange in the sense where we did some “normal” things but within the realm of social distancing. In other words, I felt as if we were living in a parallel universe. But for the sake of our kids, we tried to keep things as “normal” as possible: attending Sunday misa (church) at our parish in Oakville, weekly soccer practice in Hamilton, getting together with friends at the park on play dates, going to the zoo, visiting my parents in Windsor and so on. M. and I went out for a few dinner dates as well. As strange as this summer was, we found things to do and made the most out of it the best way we know how: through good food, wine and company.

The holy trinity of food- steak, pizza and fish

In our household, we are definitely foodies and no one can describe it better than my oldest son, T. At his annual check-up at the doctor’s office recently, the doctor asked T. what his favourite food was and he proudly replied “steak!” The doctor was delightfully surprised and sort of taken aback that a six-year-old’s favourite food is steak done rare. Fortunately, our kids like everything we make, from mahune to fish. Growing up in a Dalmatian household, my mother would always ask what we would eat the next day; my aunt used to own a restaurant in Germany, so food is definitely in our genes.

When the lockdown started, my husband made it his life’s mission to re-create the perfect pizza Napolitana as pizza is his all-time favourite food. He spent hours researching the best outdoor pizza oven for it’s value, so low and behold he purchased an Ooni Koda Gas-Powered Outdoor pizza oven. He justified the expense by stating that within 6 months the oven will pay itself off and so far it definitely has (nb: we used to order Pizza Nova like every Friday). During the first few weeks of lockdown, my husband would spend his spare time visiting various local Italian bakeries to find the gold standard of pizza flour- Caputo 00. We even planted Roma, cherry and hothouse tomatoes as well as basil for our pizza in our garden this year. Gardening in of itself was a very worthwhile and memorable experience. We got so into pizza making that we spent hours watching different dough recipes on YouTube. After testing a few different recipes, we decided that the one from Vito Iacopelli’s YouTube channel was best for us. How it works is that I make the dough and M. makes the pizza. This recipe from Vito makes approximately nine 12-inch dough balls; we make about 3 pizzas a week so the rest I just store in the freezer. Weekly pizza making is definitely a family affair as our kids get involved too. Overall, pizza making has become a newfound family tradition for years to come.

Another tradition we started in our home was fish Sundays. We decided to bring the shores of Dalmatia closer to home by making seafood and blitva on Sundays after church. If we remember, we order brancin from the local market and M. grills it on the barbeque; but if we don’t get an order in on time, then its either salmon or scallops. Definitely a nice, light lunch to end the weekend paired of course with my favouriite Pošip from Saint Hills.

good things grow in ontario

The pandemic sort of forced us to “think outside of the box” without really going too far. Being a little bit of a wine snob (Brunello being my all-time favourite,) I must say that Ontario wines really surprised me this year. There truly is a pleortha of wineries, markets and restaurants to discover in the Niagara Escarpement and Niagara-on-the-Lake regions. In July, a few of us embarked on a small wine tour with dinner at Treadwell to end the day. Simply put, just being out on the property brings a sense of peace and tranquility. In a COVID world, many of the wineries and restaurants that I have visited have taken the proper steps to ensure safety but still provide an enjoyable experience. Some notable wines/wineries that really stood out to me and worth checking out are Five Rows, Domaine Queylus, Westcott Vineyards, Kabaca, Leaning Post and Pearl Morissette.

Pjesma i vino

Croatia has a long-standing history of producing wines dating back to Ancient Grecian times. In today’s world, Croatia is home to many world-class and unique wineries. Although Zlatan Plavac Sveta Nedelja Plavac Mali will always be my favourite Croatian wine, some notable favourites of mine that were imported from Croatia Unpacked are Korta Katerina’s Rosé and Plavac Mali, Saint Hills “Sv. Roko” Plavac Mali and “Posh” Pošip and finally Stina’s Plavac Mali. Try one of them and you may be pleasantly surprised!

krv nije voda – keeping it in the family

My parents always told me, friends may come and go, but in tough times, we always can rely on family. Although the last six months have been very difficult, there have been moments of complete joy. No one can ever take away that precious extra time I got to spend with my two little boys. This summer was definitely a memorable one, where we became closer as a family and got to explore a bit of Ontario and try some new things out. We visited my family in Windsor a few times and explored Windsor’s Via Italia. Daytrips to zoos were worthwhile, but I found with kids, sometimes the most simplest of activities are the most enjoyable. Walks throughout downtown Burlington over ice cream and exploring new splash pads and parks were probably the most memorable for us.

In summary, although this is a strange and albeit difficult time, the key to making memories are the ones with the people that matter most to you – your loved ones.

Carrying traditions on: learning how to bake my mother’s orahnjača (walnut roll)

Growing up, I remember waking up to the sweet smell of my mother’s orahnjača (walnut roll).  At bridal showers, I always gravitated towards the orahnjača on the desert table as it’s not too sweet, nor too heavy and it always goes nicely with a cup of coffee.  However, my mother’s recipe is my all-time favourite.

My mother always insists on baking it first thing in the morning to let it rise properly.  Whether or not that’s an old Croatian wives’ tale, or if my mother made that up, I can say with confidence that I baked this recipe in an afternoon with no issues.  It didn’t turn out perfect and again (as noted in my previous post about sirnica/Easter bread,) I had to decipher my mother’s recipe as she only provided me with approximate steps and “about” increments.  With some investigative work, a few FaceTime calls and a million questions to my mom, I was able to figure out her orahnjača recipe!

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Ingredients:

Part 1:

  • 4-5 cups of bread flour (start with 4 cups and add more as needed)
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp of active dry yeast + 1 tbsp of sugar in 1 cup of warm water
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 yolks (separate egg whites and place in fridge for part 2)
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 cup of warm milk
  • 1 shot of Jamaican rum
  • grated lemon zest and juice of 1 lemon

Part 2 (filling):

  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • egg whites from previous part
  • 3/4 of a pound of ground walnuts
  • 1 shot of espresso

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Directions:

  1. Using the paddle attachment of your stand-up mixer, cream the sugar and unsalted butter together on a low speed.
  2. Add egg yolks, one by one, while mixing.
  3. Add the whole egg.
  4. Slowly add your flour on a low speed (I use speed 1 on my Cuisanart mixer).
  5. Slowly pour the warm milk in while mixing.
  6. Slowly add your yeast mixture in.
  7. Add the rum and lemon zest and juice to the mixture.
  8. Once thoroughly mixed, switch the paddle attachment and insert your dough hook and continue on a low speed (at this point I turn the dial to speed 2) until the mixture becomes a little tacky (you don’t want it to be too sticky or too firm; so add more flour or warm milk as needed).
  9. Once the dough has thoroughly mixed, take the dough and knead it on a floured surface for about 10-15 minutes into a ball.
  10. Place the dough ball into a large bowl, cover with a wash cloth and let rest in a warm oven for about 2 hours.
  11. Remove dough from oven and on a floured surface, take your dough and cut into two halves.  Take both parts and roll into two separate dough balls.  Then place the dough balls into two separate bowls, cover each bowl with wash cloths and place in warm oven again to rise for about 30 minutes.
  12. While dough is rising for the second time; take your ingredients from part two (sugar, egg whites, ground walnuts and espresso) into a medium-size bowl and mix with a spatula.
  13. Remove dough from oven after it has risen for a second time.
  14. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees C.
  15. Roll each dough ball into a long flat oval or rectangle (does not have to be a perfect shape)
  16. Then with a spatula, spread the walnut mixture on your flattened dough.
  17. Gently take the edge of the dough and roll (you can also place the dough on a table cloth and pull the table cloth to roll it).
  18. Repeat steps 16-17 on the second dough ball.
  19. Place each roll into a bread pan OR you can place each roll on a cookie sheet.
  20. Cover your bread pans or cookie sheet with tin foil and place in the oven and bake covered for 30 minutes.
  21. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue baking until the top is golden brown (use a toothpick test to determine if it is done baking), for an additional 25-35 minutes.
  22. Remove from oven and let rest for on a cooling rack about 30 minutes to an hour as the mixture is hot and can leak if you cut right away.
  23. Enjoy and serve with coffee!  Dobar tek!

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How COVID-19 got to me: stress, fear, uncertainty and self-care during a global pandemic

Friday was the first day that I cried….a lot.

I felt exhausted from homeschooling the kids, trying to get some work done as well as regular chores and I just couldn’t handle it anymore.  I buried my head into a sea of tears and had to walk away into a different room in my home to be alone.  I felt guilty for doing this, because I did not want my boys to see me cry.  My husband told the kids that mommy needs a few minutes to herself.

Before the pandemic, if I was ever stressed, I would go to the gym or go out to a local coffee shop to diffuse, but due to the current lock-down there is no where to go, which adds an extra layer of stress.

I never in my life imagined that we would live through a global pandemic, yet here we are.

It is currently week 6 of the lock-down here in Ontario and everyone is starting to feel it in different ways.

Up until this point, I was making the most of this situation.  I embraced the idea of slowing down.  I even wrote a blog post about it.  I started to do things that I normally wouldn’t have time to do:  participating in the wave of baking bread and sharing it on Instagram; drinking fancy wines on the weekends, pinning arts and crafts ides for the kids on Pinterest and purged a lot of old clothes and toys for donation.  I started watching foreign dramas on Netflix for fun and even contemplated downloading TikTok and get in on the bandwagon, but changed my mind because I am too old for it.

For the first time in years,  I had a break from rushing home from work to soccer practice and I really enjoyed this idea and yet, time went on…..

There is still that fear of catching the virus itself.  As my oldest has asthma and was born with a heart condition, I am extra vigilant.   I barely leave the house and if I do, its just for necessities.  On top of all this, I still worry that my husband may bring it home from the hospital where he works at.

As the lock-down here in Ontario continues on, it started to hit close to home for me.  Knowing that it will be months until I see my parents, my friends and colleagues again started to weigh heavily on me.  2020 was supposed to be our year.  Our family has been through so much over the past 6 years- premature birth, high-risk pregnancy, my husband’s residency and a sudden family death to name a few.  I know, many of you had plans cancelled too, so we aren’t alone, but I just felt like this was a big and crewel joke.

Now, I am starting to worry about the financial implications of the pandemic too.  Like you, many questions are going through my mind:  will there be massive job loss?  Will our taxes increase to support these benefits?  Will we ever recover from this?  

This created a perfect storm which culminated in me breaking down on Friday night.  However, this in of itself brought a huge relief as I let all that fear, worry and guilt out.  I’ve been positive throughout this whole process and on Friday night, I was extremely overwhelmed.  Trying to balance everything at home just got to me and I reached my boiling point. I needed that release.

What I can tell you is that I am learning more about myself and how to cope with such situations.  This time has also given me time to self-reflect and I gained a new perspective. My grandfather lived through three wars, Spanish flu and communism, yet he lived a wonderful life and passed away at age 101.  He endured and saw a lot in his lifetime but he survived.  He had hope and appreciation for life.

What I have found helpful during these times is reflection and mindfulness.  I have been journaling since I was 8 years old and I have found journaling so helpful during this time.  Staying connected on social media has become a blessing and watching all those good memes (the guy toasting to himself in the washroom is my all time favourite).  Self-care and taking breaks from homeschooling and work is so important too, I’ve had a few nights where I just had a face mask on while reading a good book.  I also find exercise quite therapeutic.

My advice if you are feeling overwhelmed, upset or frustrated, take that energy and turn it into something positive.  Find your niche.  Find something that sparks you, that makes you feel like you, no matter how difficult the circumstances are.

If you feel overwhelmed like I do, I want you to know, it’s okay, because you are not alone.  It’s okay to cry and let your feelings out.  We are all feeling this and is even getting to the strongest of us……and it’s okay to feel vulnerable.  I keep reminding myself to count my blessings and that this will not last forever.

As I have learned with experience, the human spirit is resilient, but this is a choice:  you have to choose that path and firmly believe in it because your mindset is what will get you through this.

Carrying traditions on: Learning how to bake my family’s sweet Easter bread

Easter is considered to be the most important holiday in the Catholic faith.  For Croatians specifically, Easter is also about tradition.  On Holy Saturday, Croatians (and most Eastern Europeans for that matter) will bring baskets of sweet bread and eggs to be blessed during mass.  Some people also add smoked meats and green onions to their baskets.   This tradition of bringing baskets to be blessed dates back generations.

Usually, we go to my family’s home in Windsor for Easter, however due to the pandemic this won’t be possible.  Perhaps it was a sign for me to learn how to bake my mom’s Easter bread and carry the tradition on.  The Easter bread my mom bakes is a sweet bread, known as sirnica or pinca.  This sweet bread is typically baked in Dalmatia, but other regions in Croatia have their own versions of this Easter bread.  Some put rum in theirs and others raisins.  My mother-in-law who is from Gorski Kotar makes her Easter bread with a ham in it.  This particular recipe that I am going to share with you is the one that my mom makes every Easter.  My mother learned this recipe from her sister-in-law, my Strina (aunt).

Most Croatian-Canadians will understand when I say that figuring out my mom’s Easter bread recipe is like a solving a puzzle.  No directions and all approximate amounts (od prilike) for the ingredients or po potrebi (as needed).   With the help of FaceTime and a lot of questions on my end, I was able to figure out this family recipe.  Overall, I was quite pleased with the results, despite the fact that a part of the bottom tore.  The bread was nice and soft and reminded me so much of home.

3 loaves | 2 hours prep time | 3 hours total

Ingredients:

8 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 packet of Dr. Oetker vanilla sugar
Lemon grinds from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
2 teaspoons Fleischmann’s active dry yeast (mix with ¼ cup warm water and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar)
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup warm milk
Approximately 2-4 cups of all-purpose flour (note: my mom’s recipe just says flour as needed, so I kept adding flour into the mixer until it formed a dough).
1 egg for glazing
Cooking spray for pans

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Directions:

1. Follow the directions for the yeast (mix ¼ cup warm water and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and let stand for 10 minutes).

2. Mix the yolks with cup sugar; add the vanilla extract and packet of the vanilla sugar. Mix for a few minutes.

3. Add the yeast mixture and continue mixing.

4. Add grinds from lemon and lemon juice while mixing.

5. Add the cup of warm milk while mixing.

6. Add the oil.

7. Add the flour slowly to the mixer until it forms a dough. Then with a wooden spoon, knead the dough into a ball.

8. Take your dough, cover with a kitchen cloth and let it rest in a warm oven to rise for approximately 1 and a half hours.

9. Once dough has risen, remove from warm oven. Punch the dough and knead on a floured surface or use a wooden spoon to knead the dough (I had to knead the dough, my mom uses a wooden spoon so I would say do what is easier for you).

10. Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit (or 280 depending on your oven).

11. Divide dough into three round cake pans, or corning ware bowls, or stainless steel bowls (note: if your pans are not non-stick, then spray generously with PAM or whatever cooking spray you have available)

12. Crack one egg and scramble, with a brush, glaze the three loaves.

13. Place pans into oven and bake at 275 (or 280) for 15 minutes; then increase heat to 310 (or 325 depending on your oven) for 40-45 minutes.

14. Remove from oven and place loaves on cooling racks to cool.

Notes:
*I didn’t want to make as many loaves as my mom, so I cut the ingredients in half and still worked beautifully. I filled two small corning ware dishes and one normal sized corning-ware dish.
**I think it would be easier in non-stick cake pans as they don’t stick; in hindsight, I should have placed mine in bread pans but my mom insists it has to be a round shape as that is traditional.  As I did not have cake pans available she said corning ware dishes would be fine. I didn’t have cooking spray available, so I brushed oil on it and some of it stuck but overall it was still good!
***My mom uses a hand mixer but I used my Cuisanart stand-mixer and it turned out fine.

Wishing you a wonderful Easter.  Enjoy!

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

 

Getting in tune with our learning cues – my experience with home schooling my children thus far

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we in Canada are basically adjusting to a new way of life as we navigate through self-isolation.  Because of the pandemic, most non-essential services are closed, including schools and day cares.  In Ontario, school is currently postponed until April 5th (although this is subject to change) and now parents are left with the seemingly daunting task of home schooling their kids.  Last week was a bit of an experiment in terms of home schooling the boys as I tried out different methods to see what works best for them.  I was pretty relaxed considering I don’t believe in forcing kids to do something when they really don’t want to.  Furthermore, as it was technically their March break, I didn’t want to push them too much with home schooling.

What I learned from that first week is that my boys need structure and simply put, thrive under a structured day.  I also learned that I have to tailor their learning based on their age and needs:  T, my oldest, is in senior kindergarten and can start to recognize words , read books for his age and is really good at math.   Whereas, my youngest I, is 3 and a half; he knows his 123s and ABCs and loves to draw.

Here is a little glimpse of our homeschooling routine.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Please note, what works for my kids does not necessarily mean it will work for you as every child is different.  In addition, I am not an educator (although I did get into teacher’s college but rejected the offer because I got my first job in Toronto and went there instead) so I am basically putting together what works for my kids from the resources I have available to me.  My educational background is in Political Science (I have an MA and a BA) in case you are wondering (and no I won’t be teaching them public policy or the foundations of classical political thought yet!)  

The key is being in tune with

their needs and following their cues.

The first thing I did was create a schedule for the boys and placed in on the fridge directly across the island where we eat so its in plain view.  I figure the island is the best place to conduct our home school as they can enjoy a snack while learning plus we have a lot of space.   With that being said, the schedule is in no way strict, its more of a guideline for me and if they aren’t into it, we move on to the next activity or have some free play time instead.

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Play is so important for kids as it promotes their development and sense of imagination.

Based on my research, preschoolers and kindergarteners only require 1-2 hours of learning a day.  I also learned early on that you can’t force them to learn as you do not want to create a negative association with learning.  At this age learning just needs to be fun!

We typically start our day like we would on a normal school day:  we get dressed, we brush our teeth and we eat breakfast and get started with our day.    Usually I will start Kumon first as my oldest is in Kumon and his teacher gave him work sheets until the end of April.    For my youngest,  I found a Kumon workbook at Costco called Are You Ready for Kindergarten? so that he too can try out Kumon.

My biggest challenge is since I am at home  while M works, I have to home school them at different times.

This can be challenging homeschooling two kids who are at different levels.  What I started doing is that I’ll focus one activity with one child and then switch.  So far this method has been working for me, although some days it can be challenging as one may be more interested in his toys for instance.

I also found that there are a lot of great resources available online for children, such as the Scholastic Remote Learning and the School Age Program with TVO.   I really like the Scholastic Remote Learning because every day there is a new lesson theme (i.e. bears) and comes with free printable worksheets.  There is a quiz at the end of each lesson so it gives us time to recap what we learned for that day.  Both my boys seem to enjoy this program the most.  My cousin, who happens to be a teacher, set my kids up with a Raz-Kids account to get them ahead with reading.  She tailored the program to each of their levels.   I also downloaded the Math Story Time App and Go Noodle on the iPad.

With that being said, I try to stick to the guidelines surrounding screen time as set out by the Canadian Pediatric Society as much as possible.  I also find that if my kids have too much screen time, they become really wired (as do we when we spend too much time in front of a screen!)  This is where free play and going outside comes in handy.

Our kids need a break from all this stimulation (be it from technology and what not) and sometimes we just need to let kids be kids!

…so we go outside, be it in the backyard to run around and play soccer, or to take the scooters out for a scooter ride (since parks are off limits due to the pandemic).  Fresh air is good for everyone and getting my boys moving makes for a much happier day.  Going outside promotes both physical activity and wellness in children.

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I decided to create an arts & crafts board on Pinterest to get ideas on how to help the boys with their fine-motor skills. For instance, tomorrow we will make crocodiles out of green popsicle sticks.  Considering that Easter is around the corner, we’ll make some Easter-themed art such as paper plate bunny masks.  I also love to get my kids involved with baking.  It’s a good opportunity for them to learn basics such as measuring and counting.  Last week we baked muffins and earlier this week we made Croatian crepes (palačinke).  I happened to have a gingerbread cookie set left over from Christmas so we spent one morning decorating gingerbread men.  The kids are always so proud with how tasty their creations turn out!

Luckily, I stocked up on flash cards and workbooks from Costco last summer so we can work on different things such as basic math, counting, alphabets and sight words.  My oldest can read and is slowly starting to write words, but my youngest still knows only his 123s and ABCs, so I would sit specifically with him and go through each flash card together.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

My oldest son’s kindergarten teacher also posts different activities to do at home on the classroom Twitter account, so I get both my boys involved.   Today’s activity was to take out utensils and create patters and do some basic addition and subtraction.  Tomorrow we will have an alphabet scavenger hunt where we will look for letters and then put together to create words.

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By that point, it brings us to about noon (keep in mind I throw a snack or two in during the morning learning fun).  After lunch I basically just let them unwind or play.  My youngest still naps so I try to get him to sleep while the other will watch a show or play quietly.  The afternoon is also a good time to read a book or two.  Fortunately, my boys love being read to so every day we pick a different book to read.  Other than that, the afternoon is pretty open and I basically let them control what they want to do for that part of the day.

As each day passes, I find that I am learning more and more about them; what their likes and dislikes are; what their strengths are and what skills we need to work on.  I also have a new-found appreciation for teachers and early childhood educators.

Overall, I learned the key is to have fun otherwise it won’t work.  Home schooling, when done right, can be a great experience for everyone.

 

 

 

A Croatian Christmas in Canada

To me, Christmas is more than opening presents and decorating a tree.  For me, it has, and forever always will be about tradition.  Being Croatian, it was important for my parents to pass down their traditions from their homeland to my brother and I.  It’s about getting together with friends and family.  It’s about faith, charity and spreading love.  It’s no joke when they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of year because it truly is.  Christmas is a very special time of year, not just for Croatians but for Catholics and Christians worldwide.
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As I child, I was always amazed by my parents’ stories of  their Christmas celebrations in Croatia.  My parents grew up in the inlands of Dalmatia, in a small village called Ruda in the municipality of Otok, located by nearby Sinj.  The Christmas my parents experienced was very different than the one I had:  there was no tree, there were no presents, but there was a home full of family, faith, food and love.   During the Christmas season, hay would be laid throughout the house and children would receive special treats such as oranges, figs and if they were very lucky, chocolates.   Certainly this was a humbling experience!

Advent
The Christmas season officially begins four Sundays before Christmas, called Advent.  Most Croatians will place a wreath in their homes with four candles which symbolize hope, faith, joy and peace.

Feast of Saint Nicholas – December 6
On the Eve of Saint Nicholas day, children will leave boots by their front doors in hopes that Saint Nicholas will visit them and bring them a treat.  However, if the child was naughty, then they will receive a lump of coal from Krampus instead!

In the Croatian diaspora, it is common for local Croatian Catholic parishes to present a Saint Nicholas luncheon or banquet, with children performing a special Christmas recital for their loved ones.  Other traditions  include the sale of ornaments, baked goods and pšenica bowls during these events.

paper bags near wall
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Baking
It is quite common for Croatians to bake traditional bake goods during the holidays, specifically štrudla od jabuka (apple strudel), breskvice (peaches), Mađarica  (Hungarian lady) and orahnjača (walnut roll).  My mom’s orahnjača is my absolute favourite (and I promise to share her recipe and test it out again!) and is great with coffee in the morning.
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The Feast of Saint Lucy – Blagdan Svete Lucije
Another special  Croatian tradition is the planting of wheat (pšenica) in commemoration of the feast of Saint Lucy.  The planting of wheat during the Christmas season symbolizes new life.   Once the wheat has grown, most Croatians will tie it together with a red, white and blue ribbon (the colours of the Croatian flag) and/or place a candle in the middle.  Typically, this plant is then the main centrepiece for the dinner table on Christmas day.

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Christmas Eve – “Badnjak”
I remember the sight of a bakalar (cod fish)  hanging in my parents’ fruit cellar.  Its basically a dried-up cod fish used to make a bakalar stu with potatoes.  This tradition is specific to Dalmatia as well as parts of Istria.  Croatians, like most Catholics in Europe will enjoy a special fish dinner on Christmas Eve.  Although fasting on Christmas Eve is not mandated by the Catholic Church, it is a tradition Croatians, and other Europeans, share.   One of my fondest memories growing up is my mother and my late uncle cooking this wonderful bakalar stu together.   We would then attend midnight mass (polnoćka) together and enjoy Croatian Christmas carols.  Following this, we would come home to the smell of sarma (cabbage rolls) and fresh figs.   Sometimes, people will get together after midnight mass to celebrate over drinks and music. 

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Christmas Day – “Božić “
The big day arrived, it is Christmas day or Božić!  It is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.   If you did not make it to midnight mass, then most Croatians will attend mass on Christmas day.  For most Croatians, Christmas day is the day when we get together with close family and friends over a big feast of cabbage rolls, schnitzels and much, much more.   On Christmas day, presents are exchanged with loved ones and stories are shared with young ones.

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Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

The days following Christmas…
The Christmas season does not just end on Christmas.  For many Croatians, the Feast of Saint Stephen the Martyr (Blagdan Sv. Stjepana Prvomučenika) and the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist (Blagdan Sveti Ivan Apostol i Evanđelist) is celebrated on December 26th and December 27th, respectively.  If your name is a variant of Stephen or John, traditionally, a celebration would be held in your honour of your name-sake day (or imendan).  I like to call it Christmas day parts 2 and 3.

The Christmas season traditionally ends on January 6th – the feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, to commemorate the day when the Three Wise Kings visited baby Jesus.